By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
As he defends his Iraq policy with a public campaign of speeches and a recent news conference, President Bush also has been waging a private campaign that has included off-the-record sessions with White House reporters, sources said yesterday.
One gathering, which took place Thursday in the White House residence, was an unusual gesture by Bush, who has agreed to comparatively few lengthy exchanges with reporters during his five years in office. Bush has said publicly that he needs to convince Americans that the U.S. mission in Iraq is on a path to victory, despite what he called a news media focus on daily violence.
Last week's session involved reporters from several prominent broadcast and print outlets, including ABC News and The Washington Post. Under the off-the-record ground rules, the journalists were barred from reporting what was discussed. White House officials said they also hoped the meetings' mere existence would remain under wraps. That proved impossible when journalists from The Post who were not participants in the session, as well as those at other publications, learned of the meetings from sources outside the paper and began to report on them.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan did not return messages yesterday.
Off-the-record sessions with presidents are somewhat controversial in journalism circles. Critics say reporters should not subject themselves to being influenced or "spun" under ground rules that prevent the comments from being relayed to the public. But many news organizations say the sessions give reporters a rare opportunity to observe the president up close and to gain insight into his thinking and concerns.
President Bill Clinton, who held more full-fledged news conferences than Bush has, tried different background briefings with reporters. During a March 1996 flight from Israel, he spoke with journalists on Air Force One under guidelines that forbade them to take notes and allowed them to attribute his general remarks only to the administration's "highest authority" familiar with his views. According to a pool report filed by the reporters for colleagues traveling on a separate plane, press secretary Michael McCurry wanted Clinton's comments to be on "psych-background."
In March 1999, shortly after he was acquitted on impeachment charges, Clinton attended an off-the-record dinner with reporters accompanying him on a Central America trip. His remarks were not reported.